August 11

Ishmael and the Hoops of Steel

It’s time for Ishmael’s last two years of school. He has actually survived years of bullying and teasing, due to the ‘loser’ tag his surname Leseur has blessed him with, and now, even has a small band of buddies to see him through the tough times.

‘Ishmael and the Hoops of Steel’ is the final of the Ishmael books written by Michael Gerard Bauer. And it’s probably one of the funniest. It is easy to empathise with Ishmael and his friends as they negotiate the problems faced in the final years of their schooling – the things they do and say are totally believeable and easily recognisable. Even if you haven’t read the earlier books, it’s a tale that’s easy for the reader to follow and to yearn to support Ishmael’s honest endeavours to survive.

The ups and downs of normal teenage life and strife are woven through Ishmael’s senior school story. His newfound love, extracted to New Zealand by her father’s work (just after their first kiss), troubles Ishmael. The loss of his dream girl haunts Ishmael for some time. But then there are other things he needs to worry about; as school demands, high teacher expectations and the needs of his friends claim his attention.

Through it all, Ishmael is lovable and laughable – so much, that my family wondered what I was chuckling about as I eagerly turned each page. Probably not a book to read on the train – perhaps I recognise too many students’ ways in these characters?

Gerard Bauer has captured much of the essence of the last years at school – trying to balance school, friendship and the ‘finessing’ of your own self esteem. Though Ishmael and his friends, (Razzman, Ignatius, Scobie and Bill) sometimes negotiate their final years with the skill of a sumo wrestler in a fine ballet performance, they triumph in so many other ways – just as many senior students surprise both themselves and their teachers in the final resolution of their school years. (Well, if the Razzman can get a handle on Hamlet, then there’s hope for everyone, right?)

Michael Gerard Bauer also has lots to share with his readers and those who aspire to write successfully, as he certainly models what he says:

‘Write for yourself first and foremost rather than an audience. Write the story you are passionate about – the one that makes you laugh, or cry or moves you in some way, not the one you think you should write just to get published…Your task is to make your reader feel that anytime they are reading your story, it is the only one that matters. ‘ (Part of an interview with Michael Gerard Bauer on We Love YA blog – read the whole interview here )

Much of Ishmael is a reflection either from his own personal experiences, or as a former teacher, those observed at school. Maybe that’s what makes it all so good? I suggest hooking up with ‘Ishmael and the Hoops of Steel’ soon to judge for yourself… (And if you haven’t read the previous books, try them out too!) 

## Whether Ishmael  and the Hoops of Steel takes out the CBCA Older Readers Category will be announced in the coming weeks. What do you think? 

N.B. If you haven’t read the previous Ishmael books, check out this video where Michael Gerard Bauer explains how some of his characters come about, and ways the distinctive voices of his characters develop:

August 2

Jane Bites Back by Michael Thomas Ford

jane-bites-back“It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is still alive today.. as a vampire.”

As a Jane Austen fan you may, like many, approach this book cautiously. Is it just another spin-off, carelessly adapting the legendary Austen to help promote a new book? How adept is the writer, or is he just one riding on the fame of one of the classic authors of all time? Or maybe he’s an Austen fan just attempting to get in on the vampire/ Twilight craze?

The only way to judge is to read this tale: where Jane Austen is alive and running a bookstore in a sleepy little town called Brakeston near New York. From here, she hopes to publish a new novel, the first in her persona of Jane Fairfax – since it would be impossible to trade on her real name, when she supposedly died 200 years ago!

But the publishing world is tough, and her manuscript is rejected 116 times, before a glimmer of hope comes her way. We watch her frustrations, as all sorts of Jane-Austen-paraphernalia fly off the shelf of her bookstore, and she has to deal with the commercial roadshow of getting published.

Along the way, we find Jane is in fact a vampire; though a mostly well-behaved one. She never ages, and this has an impact on how she lives her life, and has forced her to relocate many times in the last 200 years.

Her dream to be published yet again is hampered by others out for self gain. How she deals with these episodes is told in a witty way, that will have readers chuckling as they consider the consequences for all those around her. Can she really expect to live a normal life? Can she maintain normal relationships? What will happen when her real identity is discovered? And who is the handsome mystery man that has such an impact on those around him?

Michael Thomas Ford’s book has received praise from lots of different readers – including Austen diehards, vampire lovers and romance readers. And he promises more to come (and certainly leaves the ending open for more to happen in Jane’s life). It’s a fun, quirky mix of literary history and a send up of the latest vampire rage, while providing a light entertaining tale set in the commerce of the modern day world. So just sit back and enjoy the tale – you will have others wondering what you are smiling about!

## And here’s a quote from the author, in case you were worried that he didn’t think much about Jane Austen’s place in history:

The thing is it never occurred to me that making Austen a vampire was in any way disrespectful. Rather, I looked at it as giving her the chance to take revenge on those who have appropriated her literary genius for their own profit. I thought her fans (among whom I of course count myself) would cheer this opportunity for her to reclaim her rightful place in the literary world, even if she does have to do it under a pseudonym. From an interview in the Huffington Post, January 4, 2010.

May 7

My Big Birkett – Lisa Shanahan

mybigbirkett.jpgGemma Stone is convinced that it is a bad thing to chuck a Birkett. She describes it this way:

“In my family, when anyone rides the wave of their emotions, we say they’re chucking a birkett. When the emotion drives out all common sense, we say they’re chucking a big one. The telltale signs are: flaming cheeks, shortness of breath, bulging eyes and a prolonged illogical outburst.”

Gemma is trying to keep her temper in spite of all the things that are complicating her life. These include falling in love with the coolest boy in school, dealing with her sister Debbie and her bizarre wedding plans, and dealing with Raven de Head, the town bad boy who has a crush on her.

The whole novel has a dramatic feel and would make a wonderful play. Lisa Shanahan, the author, trained as an actor at University of Western Sydney and taught school drama. She begins by introducing us to Gemma’s sister, Debbie, and her wedding plans. In something resembling ‘Muriel’s Wedding’, Debbie wants a wedding with all the trimmings. This includes Gemma wearing a sequinned and feathered swan costume, as the flower girl, along with trimmings like ice sculptures, and serviettes in the shape of origami birds.

However, the main action occurs at Gemma’s school where she is having a crush on Nick, the rich and handsome one that all the girls want. He, of course, hasn’t noticed that she exists. On the other hand, someone else has noticed her – Raven de Head, who comes from the wrong side of the tracks.

To get Nick to notice her, Gemma joins the school play which is to be a performance of the Tempest. This is when art starts to resemble life. Nick plays the shallow Prince Ferdinand, Gemma is Miranda and Raven De Head unwillingly takes on the role of the monster, Caliban.

Gemma has to choose between Nick and Raven. In the course of this, she goes to Raven de Head’s home for dinner, where she receives the shock of her life and is jolted out of her safe middle class existence. Raven’s home is completely dysfunctional. His father and mother live on welfare, one brother is in jail, and two others are delinquents. Their family solve arguments by violence, and Gemma is shockingly caught in the middle of one. One scene is portrayed so realistically that it is painful to read. I made myself keep going, but wanted to put the book down. Of course, after this Gemma wants nothing to do with Raven or his family.

In the end, Gemma makes the right choice but I will not give that away! It climaxes with Gemma chucking her own birkett at Debbie’s wedding. It is a hilarious but very moving scene. This book is highly recommended for its wisdom and humanity.